Same simple ingredients, much different results


Go back with me to high school chemistry, the easy part.

Remember carbohydrates? “Carb” tells us there is carbon in there. “Hydrate” suggests something to do with water, H2O. Hydrogen and oxygen are gases in their normal state.

An H and 2 O’s makes a liquid — yes, water. The combination of a C plus H2O makes a bigger molecule and bigger molecules mean heavier substances. Granules in the sugar bowl are solids with 12 carbons. Starches are much larger yet. These complex carbohydrates are pretty much long chains of the same thing.

The point I want to make is that our bodies chop them up, but the consequences of eating them isn’t the same. Is it possible that we can become addicted to the smaller linkages and end up hypertensive and diabetic, while some happy Italian lives to an old age with his pasta, tomato sauce and Sangiovese?

The difference is as obvious as your last hot fudge sundae. Sugar and creamy chocolate said something to your tongue that a plate of spaghetti couldn’t match.

Your tongue talked to your brain and listened to its demands. It doesn’t matter that the end product of either, of sugar or spaghetti, is to provide the energy our body needs. The chemical reactions that occur in the middle seem to make the difference between health and disease.

If we call sugar craving an addiction, it changes the social and emotional content of our dialogue. Stay cool, look at what we know, and avoid the urge to attach labels.

In 2012, the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs published a thoughtful analysis of similarities and differences between food addiction and drug dependence.

I’m using their terms, without implying a conclusion. I don’t have a specific definition of addiction. Losing control over a craving characterizes addiction but doesn’t slice a fine line. The chemistry of addiction gives us another way to answer the question. You might want to skip the following details.

The striatum lies deep in the central part of our brain. “Lower” animals have similar brain structures .

Our dog has a nose that detects a candy bar, in its wrapper, at 100 paces, and she extends two inches of tongue when she does. A half-century ago, researchers showed that stimulating this part of the brain produced pleasurable feelings.

Drugs and sugar binges release the chemical dopamine in the striatum. Other responses seem to be the same or similar to drug addiction, including increased serotonin levels, another pleasure giving response.

I’ll list my conclusions about sugar as I continue. At the end of the series, I’ll use them to pull the picture together.

No. 1: Sugar shares some clinical and neurochemical features with addiction. Think along with me about what it means to call something an addiction, in the context of our society.

Labeling an individual as an addict stigmatizes him or her without helping much. The medical profession is given a line to check for third party carriers, and we have to attach labels to satisfy reimbursement requirements. Addiction therapy is big business.

My interpretation is that the term is useful to science, to the extent that it offers openings for research. If we could block the links that drive us to stuff iced doughnuts in our mouths, we might get a painless solution to the problems of obesity and metabolic syndrome.

Science isn’t there yet. If you think that we are growing toward a less depressed, less suicidal, happier world, let me know what you’re reading. Chemistry warrants more investments. It will be best if the funding comes from outside the industry. An additional use for the addiction label is the ability to generate a public response to the problem.

Next time, I’ll report on whether some sugars are safer than others.

Stay skeptical. Corn growers and those who raise cane are competitors and we overweight people are targets of both.

They pay millions to lobbyists and write much of what you might Google on the subject. Sadly, they also recognize what politicians have learned in recent years. The public “hates” negative advertising but they listen to it and it changes behavior. Supporters of either glucose or fructose may be the source of a report that you’ve read, designed to demonize the other.

I choose to look at sugar as a health risk that’s related to obesity and to address diets and obesity later.

Dr. Larry Mulkerin is a retired clinical professor. He can be reached at


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